July 30th, 2014

Feeling Unable to Learn


I’ve just had one of those in-your-face learning experiences. In fact, it was so unnerving that I’m not sure I can even write about it. It all started when I bought a new computer and, as a result, had to learn an entirely new email system. Although not an unusual or difficult situation for most college teachers, it turned into an absolutely awful experience for this learner. I haven’t felt such frustration, anger, and despair for a long time.

Part of the problem is the generation to which I belong. We weren’t born teething on technology, and I was in my late 30s when I got my first computer. At that age, learning something as new and different as a computer isn’t all that easy. Children master second languages in a breeze; most adults struggle and computers are just as foreign as a new language to me.

Part of the problem is I never had any computer training; it wasn’t required or expected. My humanities colleagues and I learned by asking and telling each other. I suspect that continues today. We quickly gave up on help menus. They weren’t written by those who needed the help; still aren’t, as far as I’m concerned.

My new computer arrived, and I paid someone to set it up and transfer my files. He was very much a techie and no doubt highly knowledgeable of all sorts of computer-related things, but I couldn’t answer his questions or understand his answers to my questions. However, I did understand one key message: my trusty old Eudora email program, which I’ve been using for decades, would not work on the new computer.

That wasn’t a huge surprise. I started using it in the late 80s. For years, people have been telling me it wasn’t supported. I now ascertained that meant something different than I had originally believed it to mean. After all, I still supported it (along with the three other people who still used it). So I need to learn the new system; all the while email is accumulating in my inbox as I struggle to find my way around. I don’t try to get help. I don’t have time for that, and besides I’ve been told more than once that today’s email programs are intuitive, easy to use, and offer so many great features. I think that I shouldn’t need help and therefore am reluctant, no, embarrassed to ask.

Part of the problem is that my mind doesn’t work like the minds of those who design software. They must all be visual learners because there are icons everywhere, and the vast majority are meaningless to me. “What’s this stick with a U on the end of it?” I ask my husband. “It’s a wrench.” “What’s the wrench for? I’m supposed to use it fix the damn thing?” “No, it means tools.” “Oh, for God’s sake, why don’t they just use the word?”

But the biggest problem? I don’t believe I can learn it. In fact, I’m sure I can’t and everything I do only proves this foregone conclusion. I get stuck. I try to get the program to work by trying something akin to how the old program ran. It doesn’t work. My mind is so fixed on how it used to be, how, to my thinking, it’s supposed to be, that I can’t conceive of any other way. My inbox now has 36 messages listed by date. I need to get them organized into folders, but I can’t figure out how to make folders. Days pass. Now I have 76 messages, and I’m forever hunting for the ones I need. I still can’t make folders. I beat my fist on my desk. I yell at my husband when he tries to help. I should retire; I am too old. I cannot learn this. I cry, crushed by my utter stupidity.

My husband (who I love for not leaving during this whole ordeal) finally figures out the folders. I get my messages organized, thinking about how it feels when you try hard, when you’re desperate to learn something, and yet you still can’t master it. I decide that teachers need to know how this feels.

I’m recovering. With my husband’s help, we’ve figured out enough things that I no longer feel my career collapsing. But it will be a while before I forget what an otherwise competent, well-educated, modestly successful academic can be reduced to when confronted with what looks like an impossible learning task. I decide that students don’t need to know how this feels.

So what lesson can we take from all of this? To be sure, failure is part of learning, and it’s important for our students to develop strategies to help them push through failure. But that’s not the kind of failure I’m writing about in this post. It’s about struggling mightily to learn something, only to have each attempt met with more failure, frustration, and feelings of futility. It sure doesn’t feel good, particularly when all you hear is how “easy” it is. How do we keep this from happening? I welcome your strategies for learning new things that you know will be difficult. Please share in the comment box.